I wandered into Best Buy the other day, and I ended up buying a collection of horror films titled “30 Films – Horror Collection”. Far as I can tell the only reason this collection exists is because someone lost a bet. However I was able to use my new writer skills to salvage my dignity, and get my $10 out of the deal. Out of the 30 movies, five were entertaining, but only one managed to creep me out. I’ll tell you about it later. This leaves 25 movies which never should have been made. Yeah, I said it, there is no way someone read the script for these movies, and then thought they were a good idea. Half of them are clear rip-offs of other, more popular and profitable horror movies (most of those suck too, by the way), and the other half are either stories that meant well then fell apart, or someone green-lit a project as a favor for a brain damaged friend. I learned a few things from my afternoon of horrible horror movies…
- Don’t be predictable – Four of the thirty movies center around a group of young people who travel to a remote cabin for a long weekend of booze, sex, and drugs only to be picked off one –by-one. One movie does get style credit for at least being original enough to have these people be filming a porno movie at their lonely cabin. All of the movies follow the same cookie-cutter pattern established in John Carpenter’s “Halloween”, and the first “Friday the 13th” movies.
So what’s the fix here? Why the fuck does it need to be out in the woods? Why not a backyard party in Fresno, or a high-rise Chicago apartment? One of the driving horror elements of “Rosemarie’s Baby” is its location in New York City. When a familiar, safe location becomes a dangerous place it is a shorter trip for the reader or viewer to make to be imported into the story. The woods can be scary at night, but everyone would freak out if they hear something moving in their closet at four in the afternoon.
“But what about ‘The Blair Witch Project’?” What about it? Blair Witch was original from its concept (found footage), to its execution, (we never see the thing chasing them leaving us to experience their fear, wicked ending). Have you noticed nobody has followed that movie into the woods in the same way to attempt to build on the concept yet? I did.
- Characters are EVERYTHING. – Jesus, why do I need to even say this? I need to say this because 28 of those 30 movies featured cardboard cut-outs instead of real people: The knowledgeable doctor, the gay guy, the reluctant hero, the hero who turns evil, the slut, the good girl, the tortured slut who wants to be a good girl but dies anyway, the kind-hearted vampire, the friendly werewolf, evil midget, the weird handy-man, diabolical rednecks.
I won’t name these movies, but I’m betting you have thought of a dozen movies where these characters live. Get the picture? What’s the fix? DON’T SUCK AT WRITING. Elmore Leonard never plotted his stories, instead he let characters drive the narrative. A good character will inform the plot at every step of the way. For horror the big problem is formula writing, I know who dies last, and who will get away. Invest in you characters and your readers and viewers will too. Look, I know certain storylines will require similar characters. You know, cops, rural sheriff’s deputies, doctors, scientists, and the old guy who lives alone (in the woods, or in the apartment down the hall), but make them your own. Have fun with them. Best example of this is “Lake Placid”, where every character was standard issue, but David Kelly made them fully functional people. The result is some of the best dialog in any horror movie you will ever see.
- Don’t play it safe. – The majority of these movies are perfectly lit, perfectly blocked, every shot is in frame, and every reaction is telegraphed well before it happens. Nobody gets their balls cut off, nobody accidently has sex with their sister in the dark while their stoned, nobody cares why the killer is killing people, and the killer is slow and methodical.
Let’s start with the killer. We live in a world with real killers, mass murders, and spree-killers. The knife-wielding, axe-swinging killer just doesn’t hold water, and truthfully never did. The Sandhook Massacre is an example of a real horror story where lots of children were murdered, and it was all over in less than fifteen minutes. [Just adding that Sandyhook Elementary School was a well-lit, safe place where a horrible thing happened. See example #1] The horror of 9/11 wasn’t just the people jumping to their deaths, it was us imagining what was happening to the people still trapped inside of the towers before they fell. What went through their minds in the hour before their building took them to their deaths? What decisions did they make? What decisions did they fail to make in time? These questions based on real-world horror will transfer into your zombie, vampire, or thing-in-the-lake story too, so mine them to make your tale stand out.
- It’s not style over substance, it’s style AND substance. – Stephen King is the master of horror fiction because he has earned the title. He has original stories populated with real characters, and he can be counted on to zag when you expected him to zig. He keeps his readers on their toes to the end. One of the 30 movies spends a lot of time with shots of a lonely lake, and the woods around the cabin (while nothing is happening), more than a few of the movies have great locations (castles, old buildings, and even a huge ship), but use them as a crutch instead of giving us a good story.
Riddley Scott’s “Alien” is an example of a good story full of solid characters with a setting full of atmosphere. All three elements feed off of each other. “Downton Abbey” is shot in a big mansion, but it’s not a scary place within the context of the show. What would Stephen King, or Riddley Scott do with the same building? Many of the 30 movies are designed to feel and look like the movies they are ripping off, so they fall flat due to the lack of substance ( good characters, good story) in the director’s quest to achieve a look and style. I suspect this stems from these directors not having respect for the horror genre, and certainly no respect for the script. Many young directors get their start in horror flicks, but too often they view it as a stepping stone to more serious work – and that’s the problem. Every job deserves to be taken seriously. You’re a young director, SciFy hires you out of film school, and hands you an awful script. Guess what? You can still make it work, there is no excuse not to. The greatest horror movie classics were made on shoe-string budgets, you just have to get your ass in gear and commit to your story. If you make shit it was always be on your résumé from here in out, so don’t make shit.
- Make your story frightening, and as disturbing in every way possible. – All but one of the 30 movies holds back on the horror, looks away at the last moment, makes the moral choice over the immoral one, and otherwise chickens out at the brink of actually scaring you.
Every horror writer should aspire to create something so terrifying it ends up being banned in certain countries, and requires a warning label on the cover telling buyers of the risks to their mental health should they read your story. What is the true purpose behind a good campfire story? To keep everyone on edge at night, because the woods are a dangerous place. During the day everyone laughs the story off, but when it gets dark every cracking branch becomes an approaching axe-murderer (axe murderers are scary when you’re 10). The movie “Jaws” scared millions of people out of the water in 1975, and not just at the beach, even the big lakes were void of swimmers that summer. “Jaws” is an example of our primal fears of nature, the unknown, and loss of control of our immediate world. “Jaws” also happened for the most part on a sunny beach, or under blue skies, and when it was dark the fear and shock factors went through the roof. “Jaws” should be every horror writer’s bench mark.
Now let me tell you about the one movie I did like.
“Silent Night, Bloody Night” is a movie directed by Theodore Gershuny (I’ve never heard of him either). It is low budget, and probably designed for the drive-in movie market of the early 1970s. This movie has John Caradine in a throw away role, and he is the only recognizable name in the cast. The movie has many flaws, some are plot holes, and the rest stem from its age. These flaws are overcome by a good story, decent acting, and applied style of film making to add an extra dimension to the story.
The plot involves an old house at the edge of town [yup, you’ve seen this one before, but…] which the city fathers wish to buy so they can demolish it. The house attracts squatters and teenagers, but its dark past is what the town folk hope to erase. I don’t know the story behind this movie, however it looks like Gershuny took an okay script, and made the most out of his opportunity. The house, like in any good horror story, is treated as a character with creaking doors, dark wood paneling, and by using good camera angles the windows become vacant eye sockets. The story takes place in winter, and the snow adds to the atmosphere of the house with ambient pale light coming through the windows. Gershuny uses a long lens for most of the movie, maybe because it’s all he had, but it seems more like a choice. What you have are a lot of wide-shots countered by stillness while the characters interact. There is not a lot of running in this movie at all.
The stillness creates tension, and the simple plot builds nicely while the bodies pile up. The movie was shot on 35mm, and has not been restored making the film creepier. The ending is rushed, and this is the only real let down. The movie for its time refused to play it safe. The violence is perfectly calibrated, and at one point goes over the top even by today’s standards. Just graphic enough, and more than intense for what was needed. Gershuny took the time to seek out the best camera angles for his action making the house at times seem vast, yet claustrophobic when the killer stalks his victims.
There is not a lot to fix in this movie, and could even be remade using the same script. If this movie pops up on your radar I recommend it. While I don’t recommend this 30 Horror Film collection as a good source of quality horror, I do recommend it for writers who want 29 examples of what not to do. Some of these movies are good for parties where everyone sits around making fun of the action. The one thing I hope to leave you with is curiosity, I’m always on the lookout for ways to improve my story telling, and this collection came through in that department. When you find that scary story or movie you should first enjoy the shit out of it, and then you need to dissect it to find out why its scary going from element to element until you understand the story’s success. The same applies to failure. In fact the better you understand failure the more success you will have.
It’s really that easy, now get busy writing.